How Hannah Montana Got Into Trouble Over Diabetes
Recently Disney yanked the eagerly anticipated Season 3 opener ofHannah Montana, the popular preteen show starring Miley Cyrus. Among diabetics, the preseason hype was positive: A major star in a major show (its viewers may be small in stature, but the show draws 3.5 million of them) was going to spend significant air time focusing on diabetes.
In prepping the episode, Disney told E!Online that it conferred with medical experts to make sure the show’s content was handled responsibly. And it timed the episode’s airing to coincide with American Diabetes Month.
But the network’s awareness effort was scuttled when a few parents of type 1 diabetics saw an episode preview and ratted it out for promoting diabetic stereotypes.
A celebrity news writer got the scoop from one of them. The unnamed parent said the episode, in which shaggy-haired Oliver is diagnosed with diabetes and Hannah Montana tries to keep him from eating sugar, reinforced bad stereotypes about type 1 diabetes, such as type 1 diabetics can’t have sugar (they can) and sugar causes type 1 diabetes (it doesn’t). According to the source, Oliver is also never shown taking insulin or checking his blood sugar (both of which are realities of type 1 diabetes).
I have not seen the episode (though I have seen the show before—for months my four year old has been waging an unsuccessful campaign to watch it), but the title alone, “No Sugar, Sugar,” gives me an idea of where the Disney folks ran afoul. Sugar has been associated with diabetes for many decades; around some elderly people you’ll still hear the phrase “sugar diabetes.” But it’s an outdated reference.
Scientists don’t know the specific cause of type 1 diabetes, but they do know that the body’s ability to produce insulin is either damaged or destroyed due to an autoimmune response. Genetic and environmental factors are at the top of the list of possible causes, but sugar is not one of them.
Type 1 diabetes advocates often make this point, especially when they feel efforts to fight the disease are being overshadowed by its bigger brother, type 2 diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are 24 million diabetics in the U.S.—only 3 million have type 1.
Type 2 diabetes is not specifically caused by overconsumption of sugar, either, although obesity is considered a leading risk factor. But there are plenty of type 2 diabetics, like me, who were not obese or severely overweight when they were diagnosed.
But the perception that there is only one kind of diabetic and that diabetics can only get the disease by eating too much sugar (or by making other poor diet choices) is prevalent. It bothers type 1 diabetics so much that a few have humorously campaigned to rename the disease.
Though I’m type 2, I cringe when I run into the perception too. Like when I tell someone I’m diabetic, and they reply “But you’re not fat.” Or at the holidays, when someone holds out a plate of cookies for me, but suddenly remembers my glucose intolerance, and pulls it back. “Oh, you can’t have sugar, can you?”
I’m sure this is the point those type 1 parents were making when they complained to Disney—with so much misunderstanding about these two related diseases already out in the public, why add more? I’m not normally a fan of such efforts to tamp down a network’s efforts to portray a controversial topic. It usually smacks of overreaction and borders on censorship.
But if my daughter saw this Hannah Montana episode as described, how would she react? Would she chuck her Halloween stash or empty the sugar jar because she thinks Daddy’s not supposed to have sugar? Maybe Disney did the right thing.
We’ll see later this season. The episode is being reviewed and the network says it plans to make changes and air it.